The House of Lords is as antique an institution as you can find. Once the preeminent house of the British Parliament, its influence was steadily eroded by the legitimacy granted the Commons by the elected character of its members. In the early twentieth century, after a bitter stand-off with the lower house, the Lords’ real powers were eviscerated, leaving it a body only able to delay rather than halt legislation.
The appointed chamber remains, nonetheless, a serious anomaly. The centre-left Liberal Democrats (their leader comes from the right wing of their party), now in government with the Conservative Party, had pledged to bring about House of Lords reform, and the reforms on offer contained a bizarre range of formulas whereby only a percentage of its members would be elected. This absurd ‘compromise’, perhaps representative of the LibDems’ turn in government, might help to explain the failure of the reform efforts.
The argument—to be charitable—for the Lords in the twenty-first century had always been that it contained non-partisan, level-headed members, whose disinterestedness and expertise in some field allowed them to provide the kind of scrutiny that an elected body was apparently incapable of offering.
But the Guardian has now reported that—as one might have expected—the Lords (which now counts an incredible 785 members) comprises nothing more than a reward system for party donors. The occasional “expert” or “notable” will be appointed, but “cash for peerages” seems to be the order of the day, with donations to the three main parties the primary qualification for admission. So much for non-partisan disinterest and expertise! The wealthy magnates who not only influence the elected members of parties through donations now have a further hand on the political tiller by dint of their status as legislators in their own right. Sadly, many members of the House of Commons—including the ostensibly-progressive Labour Party—have failed to support Lords reform, arguing that a second elected House would threaten the pre-eminence of the Commons, and thus their own power.
The Lords are not the only bunch of dinosaurs roaming the British political landscape. The Royal Family, recently given a new lease on life by the entirely unremarkable birth of a youngster—who if precedent is any indication will be an entirely unremarkable individual brought up in an utterly unremarkable family—who will someday reign over a besotted nation armed with a silver spoon.
Further Guardian reporting—the paper is one of the less obsequious organs of the British press when it comes to the establishment—revealed that the Royal Family is not as cute, cuddly, and toothless as its defenders would have us believe. The Queen and Prince Charles exercise a power of veto over matters which affect their constitutional prerogatives and “crown interests”.
This has serious implications, as when “the Queen completely vetoed the Military Actions Against Iraq Bill in 1999, a private member’s bill that sought to transfer the power to authorise military strikes against Iraq from the monarch to parliament”. Ultimately, of course, the power to go to war resides with the Prime Minister, who could nominally be ousted by a discontented Parliament. But in a tightly-whipped institution, the members of which tend not to cross their leaders over matters which could precipitate electoral upheaval, the retention of such a prerogative to an individual, by association with a prehistoric monarchy, can have serious implications, as the widely unpopular 2003 invasion of Iraq demonstrated.
In retaining these powers, and in working to keep them secret, the monarchy is dangerously hypocritical. Its public strength has always resided in the pretence that it was above and beyond shabby politics. But the meddling of the Queen and Prince Charles in such a self-interested manner—most dangerously over matters of national import like the power to go to war, and most pathetically over matters of their private moneyed interests—gives the lie to this claim. Even now, the Prince of Wales is seeking to protect his memos to the government private.
The Conservative Attorney General has joined the Prince’s lobbying to keep his political letters private, saying, “Any such perception [of political involvement] would be seriously damaging to his role as future monarch because if he forfeits his position of political neutrality as heir to the throne, he cannot easily recover it when he is king”.
The Prince of Wales should have thought about that before he decided to abuse the power which he wields with such impunity, and abuse a position he holds due neither to merit nor popular election. Like other members of the monarchy, he is a relic living on borrowed time in a country which inexplicably continues to support a culture of extraordinary privilege which provides for an incredible abuse of power.